The Story Circle is the invisible storytelling tool we all use all the time. Once you become aware of it, you can harness it’s power and become a master storyteller.
Technically speaking the story circle is a story structure tool developed by writer Dan Harmon. He created it as a kind of a shortcut to breaking a story.
Dan Harmon’s Story Circle is basically a story outline template
You could also think of it as the cliffs notes to Joseph Campbell.
If you want to know more about Campbell and his monomyth, check out our other post here.
And also read some of Campbell's work. It's all great. And it’s got some Star Wars stuff in it!
It’s a shame there aren’t royalty checks for developing the ultimate story outline template...
The story circle is an abridged version that can help you out a ton when it comes to story structure.
It’s essentially a story outline template.
How do you use it? Well, you're about to find out...
The universal language
The universal language is story. We can all understand images, character, that display an event and signify meaning.
We tell stories about what we did over the weekend.
It's not always super compelling.
People might not be paying attention to us.
But we tell the story.
We know exactly how to tell it too. Without stopping and thinking about it first.
And the stories we tell all the time follow Dan Harmon’s story circle. Even if we've never heard of that before.
Because narrative is how we make sense of the world around us.
Science itself is a kind of narrative structure we use to understanding things.
As is religion.
The story circle isn't something you need to understand to tell a story.
You already tell stories all the time.
Think about the last dream you can remember having.
Your brain is telling you stories, using some version of the story circle, even when you're unconscious.
So telling stories is kind of like breathing.
Telling good stories though…
Stories that will keep all audiences interested… on the edge of their seats even...
well... that's a little bit tricky.
And that's where a better understanding of the story circle you already are using comes into play.
It really is the ultimate story outline template.
The eight steps
You. Need. Go. Search. Find. Take Return. Change.
Those are the eight steps to Dan Harmon’s story circle. If you want to know a little more about how to use each one within a story outline template, check out this other post here.
The essence of the you step is the protagonist of the story. It doesn't always need to be a single person. It could be a family. Or a team.
Or it could be a car.
What if you came into work late because of car trouble? When you arrived, you'd need to tell the story of what happened.
"My car (you) started making weird noises (need), so I had to take it to the shop (go) where they checked everything (search).
It turned out the car's engine was in bad shape (find), so they had to pull it out and order new parts (take).
They put the repaired motor back in (return), and I drove out of the shop in a car that felt brand new (change).
Dan Harmon’s story circle begins...
Best story ever? No. But the principle of the story circle is fully intact.
You do that without knowing it.
So imagine how much better you can get at telling stories once you see the code behind them?
You'll be like Neo is at the end of The Matrix!
In the car anecdote, it was weird noises. What it was was the "need" to get those noises checked out.
Need is pretty essential in any story. Without it, there is no reason to go forward.
But don't worry!
Life is full of constant needs. Everyone needs things from each other. People need money. They need love. Many also need approval.
People need food. Without these 'basic' needs we'd all die!
Luckily for us storytellers, needs are constant and unending.
Not so lucky for us as human beings. But it's a small price to pay for an easy to use story outline template!
Needs drive us to action. You feel hungry; you get a sandwich. Your car makes weird noises; you get it checked out.
Go makes it active. It also coincides with what's called the crossing of the threshold.
Which is a fancy Joseph Campbell way of saying "starting the adventure."
If there is a need but not a go, the story ends. If the need is extreme, like being hungry, then the "you" starves and dies.
Try to make your need so vital that it's impossible not to go.
Search is where things begin getting more complicated. Both concerning the story you are telling AND in terms of the process.
Hmm... that's probably not an accident...
The word search is helpful because it keeps it active.
The character can address the need by searching for an answer.
Great stories don't always do this so literally. For Harmon's story circle, it works to keep it active and straightforward. He's writing half hour tv shows.
In a big epic feature film drama or a novel, the "search" is going to require more than a physical search.
Another good way to think about this step is that it is the road of trials, in Campbell terms.
That means it's a series of obstacles the hero must overcome. It's where the rubber meets the road regarding that need.
It's where the rubber meets the road... of trials...
The hero has searched and searched, and now he's found something! Whatever he needed!
Hooray, story over!
Nope. Because in a good story the hero doesn't find what he needs. He might have found what he wanted, but it turns out he needs something else.
Maybe he found out that he had some terrible weakness here.
Whatever it is, this is a moment for the hero. A crisis of discovery. Not always good.
Plus finding something isn't enough... you also have to...
Take whatever you found! And escape with it!
Campbell might call this part of the story circle the magic flight.
I always picture Luke Skywalker running through the Death Star with Princess Leia. He found the princess, and now he's taking her to safety.
The return stage is coming into the home stretch.
The character has brought back into the normal realm whatever they found and took. Be it a magical item, a person, a lesson...
And as a result of this they
The change could be a personal one; it could be a change to the world around them.
In the instance of a movie or long story, it would be both.
Sometimes the change has opposite effects too. The world has changed for the better, but maybe the protagonist has changed for the worst.
Playing with the change step can be interesting. In the Dark Knight, Bruce Wayne has been forced to undergo a dramatic and painful change.
Holy Monomyth, Batman! Way to embrace the ‘change’ step!
That's what makes it a good story.
Change is the key to any story.
You could think about the whole long eight step process full of story details as being about stretching out that change.
What do we do when we tell stories? In a basic primal way, we try to grasp the changes around us. The changes that we can't control.
Why do people die? Why does the sun rise each day?
Our stories are how we better understand the world around us. The changes around us that we have no power over.
In a way, stories are how we help ourselves cope with change.
Reminding ourselves over and over again that change will happen, and life goes on.
How to apply the story circle
The first step to applying the story circle is seeing it all around you.
I remember once asking Dan Harmon (yes, I knew him “before he was cool”) how the story circle might apply to a song.
He started to answer, but we were at a party, it was loud, and he was pretty drunk. So what he said didn't make a ton of sense.
But if you think about it a lot of songs do tell a story. Even if the eight steps aren't as evident as they are in my little car anecdote. Or in Star Wars.
Apply the story circle to ALL the movies you see, the episodes of TV you watch, even to the ads.
If you are into sports, apply it to a game. Isn't each player in a game a "you"?
And the course of the game could be the structure of their journey?
What if the journey began in the locker room beforehand? With the player meditating on went wrong in the last game. How in this game he'd approach things differently.
You're starting to tell a story
We just can't help ourselves. Telling stories and using the story circle is like breathing.
The more you understand that about the story circle, and embrace it, the better you'll be at doing it artfully.
And when it counts. Like when you're sitting there staring at the blank page.
Remember. Start with the You.
And if you don't remember don't sweat it. We've got a helpful Story Circle downloadable worksheet and template that you can fill out.
Do it for each story you come up with. Every episode of Rick and Morty has a story circle. That's how Dan Harmon has his writer's room break each story.
From there, they start to elaborate in different directions. But the core is the same. Break the story using the story circle.
Don't forget to grab the free Story Circle worksheet here.
Also remember the story circle is one of many useful screenwriting tools. I'd recommend you apply it along with other ones, like this one on writing better dialogue. Or this one on formatting your screenplay.
Don’t forget to also check out our post on screenplay outlines.
Ultimately they're all different ways of helping us to do what we do best:
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"The Complete Guide on Dan Harmon's Story Circle." #screenwriting #development #filmmaking